Thinking Critically about Marxism, Socialism and Communism (All in fewer than 1000 words!)

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[This is the third blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. Last week started a sub-series on the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really escape Plato’s Cave unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Last week’s blog entry tried to explain capitalism in three simple phrases: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. This week’s episode turns to the main critique of capitalism (Marxism) and to the nature of its alternatives, socialism and communism. Again without judging, it will clearly explain these terms using just three points each and in fewer than 1000 words. I promise.]

MARXISM

Marxism represents the Western tradition’s most trenchant critique of capitalism. Marxism’s three points are as follows: (1) capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment, (2) workers will eventually rise up against such exploitation and replace capitalism with socialism, and (3) socialism will eventually evolve into communism. Let’s consider those points one-by-one.

First of all, Marxism’s critique of capitalism holds that the system necessarily exploits workers (and by extension, as we shall see, the environment). The adverb “necessarily” is emphasized here to show that, on Marx’s analysis, the destructive nature of capitalism is not dependent on the personal qualities of individual capitalists. Regardless of their personal virtue or lack thereof, the market mechanism itself forces capitalists to exploit workers (and the environment). This is because, for one thing, workers are forced to enter a labor market whose wage level is set by competition with similar workers seeking the same job. As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings.

For Marxists, the capitalist system does not merely exploit workers of necessity. It also necessarily exploits the environment. That is, the market’s supply and demand guidance dynamic punishes the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers. Thus, for example, a conscientious entrepreneur might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of his factory and filters to purify liquid effluents from his plant entering a nearby river. In doing so, he will, of course, raise his costs of production. Meanwhile, his competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring toxins into the river. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producer, and eventually drive him out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.

Marx’s second point is that the exploitation which the capitalist system necessarily fosters will cause rebellion on the part of workers. They will rise up against their employers and overthrow the capitalist system.

Marx’s third point is that the workers will replace capitalism with socialism. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism. So what do those terms mean?

SOCIALISM

For Marx capitalism’s replacement at the hands of workers is socialism. This economic system is capitalism’s opposite on each of the three points indicated earlier. First of all, whereas capitalism espouses private ownership of the means of production, socialism advocates public ownership. According to this theory, the workers themselves take over the factories and administer them, not for the profit of the few, but for the benefit of workers and their families.

Secondly, whereas capitalism demands free and open markets, socialism mandates controlled markets. Since socialism has the interests of the working majority at center, its pure theory will not allow, for instance, production of luxury crops (such as roses or coffee) if that production deprives workers of the food they need for subsistence.

Thirdly, whereas capitalism idealizes unlimited income, socialism calls for redistribution of income – for instance, through a progressive income tax. For socialism, greed is definitely not good. So it might also limit income by establishing ceilings beyond which personal incomes are not permitted to rise. Taxes and surplus earnings are then used for the common good, for example to fund schools, clinics, food subsidies, affordable housing, rents and health care.

COMMUNISM

As for Communism, it is a “vision of the future” which some, though not by any means all, socialists entertain as history’s end point. That is, while all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. This is because some socialists (along with all capitalists, of course) consider the communist vision of the future as unrealistic and unattainable. That vision, overly idealistic or not, is of a future where there will be (1) abundance for all, (2) no classes, as a result of such plenty, and (3) no need for a state.

To begin with, the vision of virtually unlimited abundance marks communists such as Marx and Engels as convinced industrialists. They were highly impressed by the unprecedented output of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shirts, for example, that would take a skilled seamstress days to produce, were turned out in minutes, once an assembly line based on “division of labor” was set in motion. Soon, communists theorized, the world would be filled with consumer goods. And in a context of such abundance “yours” and “mine” would cease to have meaning. Neither would it make sense for some to hoard goods to themselves at the expense of others. The result would be the disappearance of classes. There would be no rich and no poor. Everyone would have more than enough of what they need.

With the disappearance of classes would come the gradual “withering away” of the state. This is because “the state,” by communist definition is simply armed administrator of the affairs of society’s dominant class. As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

Thus the state’s job is to impose the will of a ruling class on others. Under capitalism, the state’s function is to oblige the working class to accept conditions profitable to the bourgeoisie (wealthy property owners). In other words, under capitalism, the state imposes the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Meanwhile, under socialism, the function of the state is to impose the will of the working class on the bourgeoisie. It enforces the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By way of contrast, under communism, in the absence of classes (eliminated by a condition of abundance) there remains no group whose will needs to be imposed on others. The state’s function thus ceases. It gradually disappears.

[Next week: Conclusion of Critical Thinking’s first rule (Think Systemically): Mixed Economy and Fascism]

Why Is the Left So Weak and the Right So Strong? (Final posting in a series on liberation theology)

Not long ago, when I was working with the Center for Global Justice in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I twice ran into a question that frequently surfaces among liberals.  The question was first posed at a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship meeting after a paper by an American political scientist. It was a pre- July 4th presentation entitled, “Democracy Matters.”  A week later, the question came up following a talk by a Mexican activist on his country’s current political context. In both cases someone asked, “Why is the political left so weak and the right so strong?”

The Mexican activist sharpened the question by observing that the political left is not weak everywhere. Yes, it is feeble in the United States, he remarked. However such weakness is not true of Latin America. The left and its solidarity movements are actually waxing there. And they really have been over the last half-century at least. Recall, he reminded us, that Cuba’s revolution in 1959 ignited a “Latin American Spring” everywhere south of the U.S. border. Only the U.S. sponsored installation of military regimes throughout the region – everywhere but Mexico and Costa Rica – prevented the complete triumph of progressive forces in that part of the world. And those forces are coalescing once again today. They’re electing progressive governments across the region. It’s a mistake, he said, to universalize U.S. experience.

The activist was perceptive in his distinction. As a theologian, I would add that the difference between the Latin American left and the U.S. left is the difference between Latin America in general and the United States. And it’s all connected with religion. Like Americans north of the border, most Latin Americans claim to be Christians. However, the left in Latin America has learned to use that fact in the service of social justice and profound political change. (Here I’m referring to liberation theology.)

In the United States, that has not been the case. There, religion has become the nearly exclusive preserve of the conservative right. This is because intellectuals on the U.S. left have surrendered to the right the religious language, symbols and metaphors that actually motivate ordinary people. Put otherwise, the U.S. intelligentsia tends either to ignore religion or to treat it with disdain – as fanatical, pre-scientific and therefore not worthy of serious analysis, much less of scholarly appropriation. Such attitude, I have implied in this series, is entirely counterproductive. It can be remedied by appropriating the roots of the critical thought essential for those concerned with social justice, and indispensable for mobilizing the grassroots majority. Those roots are to be found within the Christian tradition itself as identified by liberation theologians.

Put otherwise, we on the left have allowed the divinities Marx called the “gods of heaven” to prevail. We’re victims of the (highly understandable) aversion to religion so prominent among the left’s intellectual elite. We imagine ourselves living in what even theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, termed “a world come of age” – a highly secularized context. But as indicated earlier, the 21st century context is far from secularized, not only for the less highly educated, but for the imperial leadership responsible for the creation and defense of the given order. As a result, everyone but the left’s intellectual elite is manipulating the powerful field of myth – not just the religious right, but their political and economic counterparts as well. As a result when people in the U.S. think “Christianity,” “moral principle,” “strength of character,” they automatically identify it with the far right and its agenda. When they think “morals,” they think “abortion” and “sex” – almost never “social justice.” That’s why the left appears weak – no moral principle, no connection with God. 

The suggestion here has been that the left must engage its opponents precisely upon the field of myth and story. And liberation theology makes available even for would-be secularists a set of understandings that empower them to do so, and thus to communicate with our lost audience which overwhelmingly interprets the world in mythological, if not in theological terms. LT is critical theology. As argued earlier in this series, it represents the tap-root of critical thinking in its most comprehensive form. In a sense it is an anti-theology set against both the “gods of heaven” and the “gods of earth” beyond which it is difficult for the secular left to see.

None of this implies that entering the arena of myth is a job merely for theologians or “believers.”  Marx himself saw that. He was no believer. Yet he said famously in his “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” that “. . . the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism.”

However in contrast to Marx’s time and thanks to liberation theology, the left’s critique doesn’t have to involve throwing the baby of the “faith of Jesus” out with the bath water of “faith in Jesus.” Again, taking cue from liberation theologians, the left doesn’t have to alienate believers by ridiculing faith or religious people. All of that has been counter-productive and fatal for those committed to social justice.

No, the left can reclaim its place in the crucial arena of mythology. It can appreciate the person of Jesus and his call for social justice without subscribing to antiquated notions of a God “up there” manipulating the world like a vast chessboard. Liberation theology finds God not “up there,” but in horizontal relationships with the poor whom Jesus reveals as the primary repository of God’s presence and preferential choice. And backed by the work of 90% of contemporary biblical scholars the left can do so with scholarly integrity.

What has been suggested here is that to be strong and to be effective in solidarity movements, all of us have to become liberation (anti-) theologians.